DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Elliott Sadler finished fifth in the Daytona 500, his best showing in more than six months with a payday of more than $515,000.
And he was devastated.
Sadler had raced his way to the front of the field in Sunday's season-opener right when the weather radar showed rain on top of Daytona International Speedway. Only the sky had yet to open up, forcing Sadler to fight to hang onto the lead as the entire field raced Mother Nature.
He couldn't do it, losing the lead to Matt Kenseth a half-lap before the race's final caution. It began to rain minutes after the pass, and Kenseth was declared the winner when NASCAR called it some 20 minutes later.
"If you'd have told me at the beginning of the day I would take a fifth-place finish and lead some laps for the Daytona 500, I probably would have took it," he said quietly afterward. "But to be a half a lap short from being the champion of the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me."
It was a heartbreaking end to the race but an encouraging start for Richard Petty and what has become his new race team.
An offseason merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports created the new Richard Petty Motorsports, and the Daytona 500 marked a wonderful start to the partnership. Sadler had a chance to win, AJ Allmendinger was a career-best third, and Reed Sorenson was ninth.
Kasey Kahne, the star of the organization, was the only driver to have a bad day - 29th.
But it was the best showing in years for a team with the Petty name. A Petty-owned race car hasn't been to Victory Lane since 1999, and the team was on the verge of collapse before the Gillett merger.
"It's a whole new world the last six months," Petty said. "We were looking for something for Petty Enterprises. We really weren't doing what we needed to be doing, and we looked at GEM and talked to them. They were looking to expand, so we said let's just put the two teams together."
It had to be a soothing start to the season after a winter of turmoil for Petty. A summer sale to private equity firm Boston Ventures failed to put Petty
Enterprises on the solid footing to ensure the team, which has been in NASCAR since 1949, could survive the current economy. Bobby Labonte asked to be released from his contract, longtime sponsor General Mills left the team, and season-ending layoffs were unavoidable.
A merger with Gillett came together in early January, but it wasn't without hiccups.
GEM officials wanted in late December to dump Sadler in favor of Allmendinger, and Sadler gave notice of intent to file an injunction to stop his release. And there was no room in the new company for Kyle Petty, who had run Petty Enterprises for a period and drove for the organization from 1997 through 2008.
The team found a way to keep Sadler and Allmendinger, letting Sadler keep his ride while Allmendinger got an eight-race deal that could expand depending on sponsorship.
There was no solution, though, for Kyle Petty, who was so bitter he didn't even watch the Daytona 500.
Richard Petty is focused on this weekend's race in California, hoping Allmendinger can continue to have strong runs.
"We feel like if he can continue to show promise and do as well as he did at Daytona, then we feel very confident that we'll be able to pick up different sponsors over a period of time to continue running him," Petty said. "If he keeps running like he did at Daytona, I'll just run him out of my pocket."
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